Of the Coming of WEB Du Bois

Author’s note: This part of my unpublished 2002 essay, “Not the Subject but the Premise: Postcards from the Edge of Du Bois’ Black Belt,”  is reproduced here for comment and as fodder in the body of work upon which I am drawing for my sabbatical project. I consider it to be a failed work with some useful nuggets.

WEB Du Bois clearly understood that journalistic portrayals of African Americans were drenched in racism, and that black journalists had an obligation to serve as ”the voices of the black nation.” In a 1943 article, he argued that black journalists were needed because,

“The American press in the past almost entirely ignored Negroes. Very little of what Negroes wanted to know about themselves, their group action, and their relationship to public occurrences to their interests was treated by the press. Then came the time when the American press so far as the Negro was concerned was interested in the Negro as minstrel, a joke, a subject of caricature. He became, in time, an awful example of democracy gone wrong, of crimes and various monstrous acts.” (Franklin)

In “Of the Black Belt,” Du Bois is a tour guide leading us into the real South behind the bougainvillea-and-mint-julep facade. From the beginning, we know that our guide is black  – we are reminded that we must travel in the Jim Crow car. The stage is set by a panoramic view of the region’s geography (“the stretch of pines and clay”) and history – from the time of the De Soto and the conquistadors, to “where Sam Hose was crucified.”(Du Bois, 103)

That Du Bois was playing to a white readership is also clear — at various points, he assumes his imaginary white reader’s point of view, and then carefully challenges what he sees as commonly held misconceptions. His challenges must be framed carefully for several reasons: they must conform to his evidence; he can not stray too far beyond his own Victorian sensibilities and finally, an intemperate tone risks not only alienating his white readers, but could precipitate racial violence.

The titles and epigrams of the two chapters are noteworthy for their ironic allusions. According to David Blight, The Black Belt referred both to the density of its black population and to Booker T. Washington’s description of its rich dark soil. (Du Bois, 208) While it would have been common to think of a black region as something evil and forbidding, Du Bois opens with haunting lines from the Song of Solomon: I am black but comely, O ye daughters of Jerusalem –“[italics mine]. (Du Bois, 103.) Du Bois’ use of the phrase also connotes a belt holds together the economies of the North and South, the past and the present.

Of the Quest of the Golden Fleece” borrows its title from the myth of Jason, who sets out in search of a golden ram’s fleece that he believes belongs to his family. Du Bois may be suggesting that those who are striving for a share of the region’s wealth – whether dispossessed plantation owner, Northern investor, or struggling black peasant – is seeking, against great odds, to recover what each sees as a birthright. However, because poetic dissection of the region’s economy gives particular attention to the grinding exploitation and racist belief system that spawned and sustained sharecropping and peonage, it is clear that to Du Bois’ thinking, the black peasantry is the heir denied.

For Du Bois, Dougherty County  —  “The Egypt of the Confederacy” –is representative of life throughout the “New South” of that day, “from Carolina to Texas across that Black and human sea. ” (Du Bois, 117) At the dawn of the last century, Dougherty County was a faded jewel in the crown of King Cotton – “the shadow of a marvelous dream.” (Du Bois, 107) It was a land of deserted plantations with nameless Northern owners, of dogged black farmers and desolate white widows, of families broken by death, desertion, desperation and despair. Cotton prices had been falling steadily during the last 40 years of the 19th century. Natural disasters, racism and economic strife fomented lynching, demagoguery and mass emigration to southern port cities and northern factory towns.

Implicitly, Du Bois’ compact and comprehensive description rebutted the dominant racial mythology of the period. This was the period in American history now known as the Nadir; in those days, it was commonly referred to as the Redemption. Jim Crow segregation was becoming entrenched, both in law and custom. Mainstream academic, popular and religious discourse characterized blacks as “beasts” (Carroll) who had contributed nothing to civilization (Hegel) and who could never be more than “half-devil and half-child.” (Kipling) No less an authority than New Jersey governor, future president and renowned historian Woodrow Wilson had portrayed the Civil War as a tragic fight between white brothers, and the Confederacy had become known as the noble Lost Cause. (Griffith)

Against this backdrop, Du Bois holds up the people of Dougherty County – taking care to present them as rounded characters, not caricatures. On a Saturday afternoon, he tells us, the county seat of Albany is filled with  “black, sturdy, uncouth country folk, good-natured and simple, talkative to a degree, and yet far more silent and brooding than the crowds of the Rhine-pfalz of Naples or Cracow.” (Du Bois 105)

We meet Benton, “an intelligent yellow man with a good sized family” who “might be well to do they say, but he carouses too much in Albany.” (Du Bois, 106) We see black tenant farmers whose endless toil will never satisfy the absentee landlord whose hand “stretches out of the gray distance to collect the rack-rent remorselessly, and so the land is uncared-for and poor. Only black tenants can stand such a system, and they only can because they must.” (Du Bois 107)

There were churches and schools that vary from “log-huts” to “a great whitewashed barn of a thing that seats 500.” (Du Bois 108) Mutual aid societies “to care for the sick and bury the dead” were flourishing.

Beyond and over everything, though, there is debt. “[T]he merchants are in debt to the wholesalers, the planters are in debt to the merchants, the tenants owe the planters, and the laborers bend beneath the burden of it all.” (Du Bois, 112)

Here and there, Du Bois meets a black landowner such as “gaunt, dull-black Jackson,” owner of 100 acres, who declares, “I says, ‘Look up!’ If you don’t look up you can’t get up.” (Du Bois, 112)

At the opposite extreme, he describes an encounter with a dispirited “big red-eyed black” who asks for news about the rumored police killing of a black boy in Albany, then adds:  “Let a white man touch me, and he dies; I don’t boast this — I don’t say it around loud or before the children, — but I mean it. …” (Du Bois, 114)

But Du Bois gives us much more than anecdotes. He gives us analysis, as in his advancement of the four reasons for the ragged homes in which the blacks live:

1.      The slavery-era tradition of giving blacks the worse housing on a plantation had persisted in the post-bellum era.

2.      The blacks make no demands for better housing.

3.      Unenlightened landlords fail to invest in proper maintenance.

4.      Harsh conditions have forced many blacks off the farm (Du Bois, 119-20)

He also gives us data – on marriage rates, economic classes, and population density. We get a precise breakdown of the class structure that is reminiscent of The Philadelphia Negro, which included a similar enumeration. Here, too, are the talented tenth (“the well-to-do and the best of the laborers”) and something like an incorrigible ‘submerged tenth’ (“at least nine percent are thoroughly lewd and vicious.” (Du Bois, 121)

Dougherty County, in short, is a place in which possibility seems inextricably yoked to pain, where fairness seems elusive, and where the pluckiest individuals find themselves buffeted by cruel circumstance.

“Honest and careful study” of black life, Du Bois is saying, required acknowledgment of this fundamental unfairness. It also required recognition of the full range of black humanity, and the development of its full potential through investments in higher education and the conferring of civil rights. Most importantly, it required recognition of human interdependence. “So the  Negro forms to-day one of the chief figures in a great world  industry, and this for its own sake, makes the field-hands of the cotton industry worth studying.” (Du Bois,118)

As progressive as Du Bois’ vision was for its time, his Victorian sensibilities infect his reporting with class bias and anti-Semitism. Both prejudices reflect blind spots in Du Bois’ thinking and interpretation of his own life experience.

First, Du Bois’ concept of mutuality draws upon Hegel’s idea that both master and slave could only attain true self-understanding by seeing themselves as they are seen by each other. [7] As with his acceptance of Hegel’s assertion that Africa and her progeny had yet to contribute to history, Du Bois’ position implied an acceptance of race, class and culture hierarchies that he would later reject.

Second, Du Bois makes several casual references to Jews as avaricious landowners that led to questions about whether he was anti-Jewish. In “Of the Black Belt,” he alleges that “[t]he Jew is the heir of the slave-baron in Dougherty;”(Du Bois 112)and that “[O]nly a Yankee or a Jew could squeeze more blood from debt-cursed tenants.”(Du Bois, 113)

In a note written for but not used in the 1953 edition, Du Bois acknowledged that the references “[illustrate] how easily one slips into unconscious condemnation of a whole group.” (Du Bois, 210) Du Bois’ use of language is particularly ironic in light of the fact that as a student in Europe, he sometimes experienced the prejudices of people who took him to be either a Jew or a Gypsy, and he saw bigotry visited upon people who were members of those groups. (Lewis, p.141)